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What It’s Like to Pay Your Parents’ Bills

Many millennial professionals from working-class families are now experiencing financial success unknown to their elders — and feeling pressure to give back

One stereotype that plagues millennials is that they’re helpless on their own, utterly reliant on their parents’ financial support. In fairness, that’s not entirely untrue: One in four millennials (age 21 to 37, working full-time) has parents paying at least one of their bills. But to classify this demographic by its tendency to mooch is to ignore another statistic: that one in five millennials gives their parents financial support, not the other way around. 

In fact, for some first-generation college grads, their starting salary is more than their parents made after decades of working. This is particularly true for some people of color and professionals raised in low-income families — many of whom are now experiencing financial success unknown to their elders, and feeling the pressure to give back. For a generation known for its crushing student-loan debt and mounting costs of living, it can be taxing to provide some form of financial support to a parent. But for many, there’s no choice.

For Zach Michel, a 22-year-old first-generation college grad from Florida, this is a burden he’s experienced throughout college. After his mother lost her job at the beginning of his junior year, she couldn’t manage to hold another. “She deteriorated, in a sense,” Michel says. From there, it was his job to provide some stability. “I’d already been paying her phone bill by the time she moved to Arizona, so when she moved back [to Florida] I was basically paying for everything she needed.” Eventually, Michel adds, he just gave her his credit card to use. To support himself and his mother, Michel worked full-time while still attending school full-time. He often fell behind on schoolwork, but luckily, his professors were understanding.  

Now graduated, Michel is moving to Washington, D.C., for a two-year internship. His mother is currently supported primarily by her boyfriend, but Michel remains concerned. “If she still needs support in the future, it’s going to be especially hard on me,” he says. He expects to be experiencing the strain for the next six years, through his internship and into medical school. “Granted that all works out, I’ll be in a much better place financially and will be more than willing to help out my mom,” he explains. “I’ve tried to convince myself to withdraw some support, both for my sake and to light a fire under her feet, but so far I haven’t been able to. So I’m sure I’ll continue to support her, even if it puts a strain on me.” 

Sarah, a 23-year-old from Massachusetts, helps her mother in whatever way she can. “I’ve had to give her money to help pay off bills or buy clothes for job interviews, or just to help catch up on things. Several hundred here, a thousand or two there,” she says. “I can afford it, but that’s money that could be going toward other bills of my own or paying off loans. I don’t mind doing it. She paid for me for 18 years, so I feel like this is a small way of giving back.”

Of the one in five millennials supporting their parents, each gives their parents an average of more than $18,000 a year. On top of that, they carry an average of $63,000 in debt from student loans, mortgages and credit cards. Meanwhile, they delay milestones like having children or saving toward retirement.

“For a young person still working on building their own financial security, helping out an aging parent can hold them back from securing their own financial future,” says Ariel Ward, a certified financial planner and financial adviser at Abacus Wealth. “If they’re giving extra funds to a parent at the expense of saving for retirement or creating an emergency fund, then they’re setting themselves further away from achieving financial security.”

Ward recommends that anyone hoping to financially help their parents should first begin saving for their own retirement and establish an emergency fund. “Once a habit of retirement savings begins and an emergency fund is in place, set a monthly dollar limit on what can be provided to the aging parent. I recommend setting up a separate savings account to hold the determined monthly contribution and pulling from that account as the parent needs financial help,” says Ward. “Having that financial boundary in place can help them better manage their own finances and will give them something to fall back on when emotions arise around helping their parents.”

On the site Money Under 30, writer Patti Lamberti detailed the negotiations a child needs to have with their parent before agreeing to contribute. Of particular importance is deciding how much input the child will have in dictating how the money is spent, deciding upon a repayment plan and deciding how other family members can contribute. 

Still, for many young people, these negotiations are pointless. After all, without their help, their family might not be able to get by.

Five years ago, Carina’s father — previously the family’s sole provider — lost his job. He recently found work again, but his new gig, changing tires, earns far less than his previous one. Because of this, Carina (not her real name) has been helping to provide for her mother and brother. “I’m almost 27 now, and I’ve gone through them living with me, me living with them and me traveling to send back money,” she says. And yet, she adds, “It still never feels like enough.”

Supporting her family weighs on Carina emotionally, too. “Whenever I’m hustling, I’m thinking about them and what I want our future to be,” she explains. She feels particularly guilty when she spends money on something for herself. She’s also afraid of permanently having her own place to live, out of concern for the fact that she may not be able to support herself and her family. “I don’t think I can be stable without them being stable first,” she laments. 

Not that any of this changes the bottom line for her, though. “It’s family,” Carina explains. “Money comes and goes. So overall, I’m happy to do it, just because it feels right.”